Meet Pupil Slicer: Mathcore Upstarts Shaped by Bullying, Autism, Dillinger Escape Plan | Revolver

Meet Pupil Slicer: Mathcore Upstarts Shaped by Bullying, Autism, Dillinger Escape Plan

How Katie Davies overcame traumatic past to make challenging music
pupilslicer_press_2021_credit_andyford.jpg, Andy Ford
Pupil Slicer, 2021
photograph by Andy Ford

Revolver has Pupil Slicer's excellent debut LP, Mirrors, on "red with black swirls" vinyl in our shop. Quantities are limited — order yours before they're gone!

Pupil Slicer's Katie Davies didn't hear her first metal record until she was 19. But when she finally dove in, she went deep. So deep that the vocalist-guitarist, now 24, finds her band's head-spinning, time-signature-mangling math-metal-meets-grindcore compositions to be nearly as natural and familiar as any verse-chorus-verse pop song.

"It's very hard to be overwhelmed by the intensity when I've written it and know how the weird rhythms are — they don't seem confusing to me, when I've written them specifically to be confusing and disorientating to other listeners," she shyly tells Revolver. "To me, it's just how it goes. It's straightforward."

Pupil Slicer — who are rounded out by bassist Luke Fabian and drummer Josh Andrews — are preparing for the March release of their debut album, Mirrors. The rest of the world should be readying itself along with them. The record is so unrelenting in its sonic ultraviolence and in its commitment to dissonance and disorientation that it brings to mind genre high-water marks such as Dillinger Escape Plan's Ire Works and Converge's Jane Doe. It's music meant to confuse, to scramble time, to leave you asking, "What the fuck did I just listen to and how the fuck did they do that?" True to its name, Mirrors is both a reflection of Davies — the thoughts and pain and internal narratives so core to her, yet barely spoken of before — and a reflection of a systemically fascist society, where inequality, discrimination and injustice are embedded into its law, customs and economy. The personal and political pain that Davies has experienced could only be voiced and expunged with the violence of Mirrors.

Growing up in Bournemouth, a graying seaside town in southern England, Davies was a target of cruelty from a young age. She spent four years at a school where she was bullied mercilessly, by students and teachers alike, before she dropped out and enrolled in homeschool. The only music that filled her ears were video game and film soundtracks, and the violin she'd been practicing from when she was seven. Friends for Davies were nonexistent, save for the conductors at her local youth orchestra, where she eventually became leader of the first violins, aged 14. Three years later, she was forced back into public school, where she experienced more callousness from her peers and teachers. "They picked on me relentlessly," she recalls. What exactly did they have to pick on? "I don't know," Davies says. "I don't understand things in general. I've got autism so I wouldn't be able to tell what they had to pick on. I wasn't one of the 'in kids.' I didn't fit in with others." By the time she left college, at 18, she'd consigned herself to total seclusion. "I sort of stopped interacting with other people entirely because I just thought people were cruel by that point."

While those of us who experienced a similarly bitter adolescence might found some solace for our angst in hard rock or rap, Davies still hadn't been introduced to heavy music. That changed shortly after she left Bournemouth for London, where she studied for a degree in mathematics, and soon Davies began taking walks through the city with Deafheaven in her ears. She dipped her toe into those black-metal waters after a Radiohead and Godspeed You! Black Emperor phase, as post-rock and shoegaze became her gateway towards the music that came closest to resonating the sound of her soul. Eventually, she picked up the guitar and began strumming along to Deafheaven songs. After learning her way around the instrument, Davies posted on an online forum for musicians: "I'd love to be in a black metal band like Deaf Heaven," she typed. She received a message from a band who were at a practice in Camden, only a few tube stops away from her, almost immediately after posting. There, she met Andrews. Eventually, Fabian came into the fold, elevating Davies' natural penchant for mathcore and powerviolence by introducing her to the bands who'd go onto serve as key influences for Pupil Slicer: Botch, the Dillinger Escape Plan and Code Orange.

In 2018, Davies began writing the majority of songs you'll hear on Mirrors, each one of them the product of a different approach. For the main riff on the title track, for example, she inputted a random series of numbers into an online generator and made the rest of the band play along with the software's output. In most other cases, Davies' approach has been more intentional. Well versed in rhythm theory, she'll hum whatever melody has been worming around her brain, knowing the shapes it'll take on the screen in front of her while she tabs out the sounds inside her mind. "There have been times when Josh and Luke have said, 'This is nonsense. There's no way we can play this,'" Davies admits. "Everyone ends up getting frustrated and upset, so the band just have to sit with it separately and learn and internalize that in their own way." For Andrews, that usually means spending hours in bed, tapping along to the beat with his fingers, until he's formed a kind of muscle memory of a song.

Now that Davies has bewildered her bandmates, and really anyone who stumbles upon her songs, her next goal is to confound herself. "There are definitely things I'm writing now where I'm like, How the fuck am I even going to play that?" she says, laughing.

For Davies, the writing is the most fun part — then comes the daunting realization that people are actually going to hear what she's written. "When writing this album, I thought, Oh no, people might even read the lyrics, too. For a while I was considering not even releasing them," she says. "In the end, I did sort of take that into account. I spent a lot of time on the lyrics. There are a lot of layers in them, and I put everything out there, just not in a way that was overtly personal." While there are more direct songs on Mirrors, like "Panic Defence," which acts as a diatribe against the U.S. legal system's treatment of gay and trans people, the cuts that center on Davies' internal suffering come protected by a metaphorical gauze. "Like, the song 'Stabbing Spiders' isn't about spiders," she says. Is it about self-inflicted pain? "Yeah, and that's enough to go off on that one."

Pupil Slicer's debut album doesn't function merely as a mirror to Davies' pain, but a purging of it — a possibility to transcend it. "I suppose this album is about finding something good past pain and the world as it is today, because it's not all hopeless," she says. "I've been told a lot that I'm not worth anyone's time, that I'm nothing but a burden, that I'd never achieved any-thing, but with this band, with Mirrors, I've finally got some proof otherwise."